Faded Film Stars And Creepy Clowns: Cindy Sherman At National Portrait Gallery

Cindy Sherman, National Portrait Gallery ★★★★☆

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Faded Film Stars And Creepy Clowns: Cindy Sherman At National Portrait Gallery Cindy Sherman, National Portrait Gallery 4
A snap that, without any context, we can tell is from a horror movie. Courtesy of the artist and Metro Pictures, New York

I'm staring up at a glamorous blonde looking effortlessly cool in a white hoodie, while faded versions of her strike different poses in the background. It's the kind of fashion shoot photo I'd expect to find in a glossy magazine. But no, it's artist Cindy Sherman adopting one of her many personae in this major exhibition of her work at National Portrait Gallery.

Photographer Sherman uses wigs, make up and prosthetics to create different personalities, often embedded with a cutting social critique. In her 'Flapper' photographs she's dressed like a series of 1920s film stars, giving off an air of supreme confidence. But look closer and the wrinkles appear, and the eyes have lost that sparkle they once had.

A faded film star trying to stay relevant. Courtesy of the artist and Metro Pictures, New York

They are 'past their prime', as Hollywood would view them, and they're trying to hang in there before they inevitably make way for the next wave of young actresses. It's a series that draws attention to the familiar churn of the film industry that often spits out its older stars, a trend particularly exaggerated for female actors.

Fashion gets sent up, with Sherman using hair and make up to imitate the looks of models like Jerry Hall on a magazine cover. Often making a funny face, she pokes fun at the impossibly impressive lifestyle that magazines want us to aspire towards.

Cindy Sherman doing her best Jerry Hall impression. Courtesy of the artist and Metro Pictures, New York

Later in her career, the works get more elaborate with a pig-like face, creepy clowns and blackened teeth all making an appearance. But it's her earlier work with its DIY feel that has more impact. One of the simplest pieces is an early video where the artist mouths the words 'I hate you' over and over again until tears start rolling down her face. It's silent but its emotional impact hit me like a thunderous scream, making me want to reach through the screen and hug her. It's clear from all the work in this show that her acting skills are as impressive as her artistic vision.

Given Cindy Sherman has focused solely on the theme of identity for her career of over 40 years, I was worried that this exhibition would get repetitive very fast. It's testament to her work that this fear never materialised — each room feels fresh, bubbling with new personalities, each with their own story for us to speculate on.

Courtesy of the artist and Metro Pictures, New York

The artist has been making her work since the 1970s but it feels very relevant to today's selfie-obsessed culture. We're all using filters in our photos, adopting different personalities for offline versus online, and the likes of Facetune and Snapchat allow us to drastically change how we look. Cindy Sherman's photographs realise our own internal struggle to simultaneously be true to ourselves and our desire to be the person others expect us to be — it's what makes this show so personal and relatable. Cindy Sherman is all of us, and we're all Cindy Sherman.  

Cindy Sherman at National Portrait Gallery is on from 27 June to 15 September 2019. Tickets are £18-£20.

Last Updated 25 June 2019